This Thriving American City Is Built on Its Own Decaying Ruins

Beneath the bustling traffic and steel high-rises of Seattle, brick-and-wood buildings decay from lack of use.┬áThese subterranean passageways form the Seattle Underground, a mostly-forbidden network of condemned streets that once occupied the center of the city’s business district.

So what happened?

In short, the Great Seattle Fire happened. On June 6, 1889, a cabinet maker accidentally overturned a lit glue pot. With the fire chief out of town and only a volunteer fire department left in his place, the flames spread quickly between the wooden buildings in Seattle’s business district, devastating the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Thirty-one blocks were destroyed.

There was a silver lining to the destruction, as city officials realized they could rebuild the city at a higher elevation. The district was built upon tidelands and often flooded as a result.

Before the city government could begin the rebuilding process, eager business owners had already begun erecting new buildings on the same level as the charred old ones. Instead of laying waste to the buildings below, the city simply rebuilt at a higher elevation while leaving the buildings below in tact, using brick and wooden walls to elevate and support the higher street level.

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So certain sidewalks and businesses were kept alive as much as 36 feet below the new street level, accessible only by lengthy ladders until officials created entrances to access the city’s new underground. The only natural light came through skylights of clear glass above.

The Seattle Underground didn’t survive for long, as it soon became a breeding ground for both crime and disease. To prevent the spread of diseases like the bubonic plague, the city shut down the Underground in 1907, two years before the Seattle World’s Fair in 1909.

The old storefronts and sidewalks were left to rot in the ensuing decades, sometimes being used to facilitate illegal activities. The Underground survived only in the forms of safe-havens for the homeless, speakeasies, opium dens and gambling halls.

Beginning in the 1960s, local business-owners began providing tours of the decrepit Seattle Underground. Only a small portion of the area has been declared safe for the public, but since its reopening, it’s become one of Seattle’s most popular offbeat tourist destinations.

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For more information on the Seattle Underground and touring the area, visit Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour website.

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